This winter Michelle Puckett, a regular KSP blogger, and Susan Gevirtz sat down to talk about Aerodrome Orion & Starry Messenger. The book has just been published by KSP. Michelle is Susan’s student at Mills, where she is completing her MFA in Writing.
MP: First question, Susan, what does this work have to say about economy of space – in particular, the concept of relativity, how we orient ourselves, the relationship between sky and page in this book?
SG: Well, where to start? The word “economy” is interesting because it implies a structured amount – a definite amount of money or resources, whatever the resources might be – being meted out, or being used. As far as the sky goes, there is a financial economy involved: who gets to fly where, who gets to land where, who gets to do that more safely than someone else, who has access to fuel, whose airspace one country isn’t allowed to fly into – which has huge implications for everything about its actual economy. Those are some of the ways in which the economy of the sky interests me. And then, of course, there are parallels with the page in the sense that it is a delimited space. And certainly there are similar issues of access, but also the way that the work allows in – or doesn’t allow in – certain kinds of language, or is able to think outside of the page, or what kind of limit the page is seen to be, what kind of boundary. Is this a very strict boundary where not very much that seems like it’s supposedly outside the poem can enter in – or is it porous so that the airspace of the page can be a different kind of space than the restricted economy of sky?
I don’t know how anyone orients themselves in this poem, I can’t really tell, but I hope that the question about how to orient oneself is raised by the sound and arrangement, or where things fell, where words fell on the pages. The sky continues to be, and has for centuries been a navigational device – not device, but a template for navigation – and it is still that, but differently, always differently in different times because, while it might seem to be similar constellations that are up, they’re in different places, they move, and they’re named different things after different stories. They have different functions and so it’s never the same sky and it’s never the same kind of navigation. For example, South Pacific Islanders from Puluwat Atoll navigate by the feeling of the current under their bare feet in the canoe-like boats that they use to get from island to island, and they understand the way that the currents and the cycles of the moon match up. So if the page is similar in any way to a sky, it would mean that sky-writing could happen there and it would mean that there might be ways to read, even as if you are reading from above – from an aerial view – as if you’re looking at the page from the sky, or if you’re lying down on the ground and looking up at the page. There could be a sense of these linguistic constellations being different and the same and still of an English alphabet, but it’s maybe like taking scrabble pieces and throwing them, and they land this way or that.
MP: I love that because there was a part in our email conversation where I was asking you about the relationship of Aerodrome Orion to Starry Messenger, and we talked a little bit about how AO was concerned with what had happened in the past (which is not really the past, of course, but still very current), and that Starry Messenger can be seen as a reading of where we are these days. So when you say it’s like throwing the scrabble pieces up, or laying under the page and looking up as though the page were the sky, that makes sense because AO has a much more spacious feel, it’s much more constellation-like – there was more space – and you do get this sense of navigating by stars in vast amounts of space, as opposed to the second half of the book which becomes much more block-like and prosey, reading more like air traffic control manuals and instructional manuals.
SG: I thought that I was done but then these histories of the sky started arriving and I realized that there was pressure to not leave it as if there was just a contemporary sky. Of course, there are so many other ways of feeling like you’re in a plane in the sky, which aren’t necessarily that, like being in a hospital bed for many nights has a similar feeling to me. But that was one of the impulses.
MP: Another thing that I was interested in was this pointing that you did with the phrase, “Lo/ lo/ lo” and throughout the book with references to the sighted and the blind. It seems to me that the work is fundamentally concerned with the concept of observation, and specifically with Starry Messenger being the treatise written after Galileo observed the moon through a telescopic lens for the first time, and your obvious love of film, I’d like you to talk about what sort of transformation occurs to the reader of this work – what sort of information is offered by looking through this lens?
SG: Well, I don’t know, I’m not so interested in educating readers, or in helping anyone to see more. If it happens, as a result of reading the work, that’s one great by-product, but it’s not part of my wish or hope. I mean, I guess I do hope that some kind of interest of imagination is caught and that that fire goes. But there are a lot of things going on with it, and I probably don’t know a lot of them, but some of them that I am aware of have to do with the question of, again, what’s possible to see, and what isn’t possible to see. The possibility of looking up and seeing what isn’t there, as well as what is, is a big hope, a big sense of expansiveness and spaciousness and maybe a hope for poetry that you’ll look into the poem, or up into the poem, and there will be skies that you hadn’t imagined. And I don’t mean for the reader. Sure, of course, that’s great if it’s that for the reader, but the reading-writer hopefully encounters some kind of soaring or excitement that makes the blind fumbling along, which the writing can often feel like, suddenly illuminating. Not necessarily illuminating of a thing or an idea, but illuminating of just the sensation and the experience of the language being transformative and alchemical in some way.
And the “Lo”, throughout both pieces: well, I lift the language of the fairy tale, or of storytelling, at times because that kind of language, like invocations, is like a language of the glee of starting something, or seeing something for the first time, and you can find it often in the beginning of a fairy tale, or in a revelatory moment in a story, “Lo, this is seen!” The revelation of being able to see and also not being able to see anything when seeing, the shock of that, too – the possibility of that, too – is something that propels the work. Then there is the idea of using language that is exciting and promising and usually, in many cases, it’s followed up by a full story of what’s been seen, but it isn’t necessarily followed up here. It’s a kind of suspense, or edge, that I am interested in. I’m interested in almost finding out what comes next for everybody – not filling in the story, exactly, but trying to find out, what would it be if it’s not filled in? On the cusp of something that seems like it will be fulfilled, but can’t be. I think it requires a lot of suspension.
MP: It’s particularly interesting too, because I’m one of those people who – to my memory – have never had a dream about flying, and I’ve always been jealous of people who have. But I did have one dream about a scarf that picked me up off the ground – it was actually in San Francisco before I lived here! – and I got to kind of fly for a second with the scarf, and then my fingernails ripped it, and it deposited me gently back onto the ground and all I had was this slight sensation of losing my stomach for a minute, and then that was it. So it’s interesting to me to hear you talk about this being on the edge, being on the cusp, and kind of almost having something happen because that is very much what I experience when I think about flight. I wonder, for a lot of people who do have these sort of flying dreams, and do it often, and can even do it on command, I wonder what their engagement with the story would be like.
SG: I don’t know. And especially because, while it can be literal, the flight could be of so many different things, or kinds of things.
MP: Do you often dream about flying?
SG: No, not lately, but when I was littler, I did. When I was a lot littler! When I was probably between zero and five or six, I had a repeating dream that wasn’t really about flying, it was like a kinesthetic falling through space dream – almost like if you could be inside of a kaleidoscope while it was being turned, and your body would turn with it, but without the nausea, which immediately comes to my mind when I think of that. I had that repeatedly. And it didn’t have a story line, it was just the sensation.
MP: Could you talk a little bit about the concept of the lens?
SG: Oh, yeah. Well, I guess it’s never just a lens. It’s also a window, and it’s also glasses, etc., and one of the reasons why the Galileo and his use of it was so compelling is that you can think of the first telescope as sort of the first movie projector. But even more interesting to me is his delight. The language of his thrill at seeing what he saw is more the lens in the Starry Messenger piece that he wrote than the fact of the telescope that he made. It’s so rare that you hear someone that is trying to describe something include their delight and their thrill in witnessing that thing. So again, it was on the flying carpet of that that he really saw, I think, because you don’t know whether someone else from some other background would have been able to see the same thing.
MP: …just by having that tool in their hands.
SG: Yes, exactly. So really, the tool, just like with writing, is never really just the tool, although the tool is interesting, and the tool might be necessary, and the invention of the tool is also very fascinating. I think that there are different stories about whether he actually invented the telescope or whether there was a lens-maker who first invented something like a telescope and supplied him, but regardless, there are so many different things that could count as a lens, besides that telescope or that tool. I mean, a mirror reflects and can make fire, and you can see the sky in that. There are so many things – a pool of water – so many. So, it’s interesting in relation to poetry because it speaks to the way that one has to engage with the materials at hand, the daily life materials, in a way that understands them as animate – or as a lens through which to see the nature of their animation. Not beyond them – maybe sometimes that – but I don’t really think it’s beyond. So in that way, it seemed to be as much about poetry as about anything and about how what can happen with language is about the sky.
MP: In reference to language, you wrote back to me during our correspondence and asked me what I heard going on in the poetry “if it were only music, and not words that have the downside of potentially meaning something.” So I found that really interesting, though it’s definitely something that is always getting explored over and over again: what does it mean that we use words and what do words mean beyond their dictionary definitions? And there’s a tension there. I mean – it’s not music. Not strictly music. You haven’t written this on a violin. So there’s a tension and I would love to hear you talk some about the way that meaning and sound bounce off of each other and play with each other in this work. You did choose a couple of very specific taxonomies – aviation and astronomy. I assume you chose them, partially, because of what those realms of thought were able to open up in terms of exploration, but you chose these taxonomies, and yet the intention is not of instruction. I’m interested in what work you hoped to accomplish by using them.
SG: Okay, I’ll try to speak to some of that. First of all, I think that my response of asking you what is the music if we can get rid of meaning – I don’t think I said get rid of it, because I don’t think we ever can get rid of it, or would want to, but I think if there’s a poem where I can say “this means that,” then I’m pretty disappointed and I probably am not going to want to read on very much. So the hope is for it to be redolent with possible meaning. It’s like putting a cat on a leash – it’s going to go in a lot of different directions – and it’s not even as pinned down as a cat on a leash; that’s too confined of an analogy. So, the taxonomies…well I’ve always been interested in specialized language. Language that has been developed and is used to talk about phenomena that are not evident to people who don’t know that taxonomy. Instruction books, all sorts of things like that, I’ve always been interested in because they’re necessary. I don’t think of them as some sort of elite or esoteric vocabulary. For example: I don’t understand what the car mechanic is saying when she or he describes something about my engine. I am fascinated by my inability to understand and by the fact that they live in a world where this language makes sense and in fact not only makes sense, but makes it possible to act in ways that are useful and of interest. It’s of interest to me to have my car work, and it can’t happen without this specialized language. So many things can’t happen without specialized language and I don’t want to know all the specialized languages, but I’m interested in pilfering from them and sometimes pretending like I know something with them, or trying them on, kind of like dressing up, seeing what it feels like to use them. Will they lead me to something that I haven’t ever thought about before or haven’t seen before, or can’t know? And since my work always involves a lot of research, sometimes the taxonomies guide me. For example, when I did a lot of research into what it is to really be an air traffic controller in different parts of the world, I realized this is a whole world of specialized language. And I’m not going to learn aviation English right now, but I am going to be a voyeur and see what aviation English sounds like in action and then imagine that I know it, so that maybe I can learn at least something about specialized vocabularies and taxonomies, within English.
MP: I love that you’re fascinated by your inability to understand.
SG: I’ve always felt that way. I think that’s one reason why I’ve always loved to be in Greece because I think it regresses me to a state of early language acquisition.
MP: Talk about the turbulence I sensed in the text.
SG: Well, the text is interrupted. The poem is unsettled. What sustains it is a kind of submission to the unsettled. In a more literal way, like the sense of being a patient or passenger: once you get inside the plane, or inside the poem, if it’s really going to carry you, a kind of submitting goes on – much more in the case of being a passenger or patient, but your life is out of your hands and it’s an incredible act of giving up to be in that kind of position. But it’s also a kind of relief because all the minutiae of decisions that we make everyday are also out of our hands. I started writing all of this work in the hospital and I had, for the first time in years, time to read. And so I wasn’t happy that I was in the hospital, but I was kind of ecstatic that I had time to read, so, that’s probably in there. Turbulence. I guess I like a rough ride; I don’t like to know where I’m going, or what’s going to happen next when I’m working and I think turbulence in the poem is about something erupting that isn’t predictable. At least that’s the hope and the feeling.
MP: What does your “brief,” though two-parted, history of the sky say about division?
SG: Well, I think actually, more than division, it might speak to interruption that I was talking about a minute ago. It’s a brief history of the sky, not because there’s little to say about the sky, but because there’s so much to say, that, and I think it even says it in the poem, for reasons of lack of space or time – which are always the conditions we are working with – there’s no way to give an account that would be complete. Also, the history is in two places because it gets interrupted – something else comes in – and then it turns out that it isn’t finished and then it has to take up more breathing space. I think the other reason it comes up again is to show that it’s coming up again, and again, and again, but for the sake of brevity, it comes up only twice, and those two times hopefully indicate that it’s going to be repeatedly necessary to find out more.
MP: We corresponded about how the Sor Juana page was like taking a little break from the other concerns and making a diagram of the poem on the page. I’d like to talk a little bit more about that by looking at your use of Sor Juana’s First Dream (and the pursuit of knowledge in general) with your simultaneous critique of the language of evidence. Because for a good portion of human memory, history has been talked about in terms that are fixed. So what kind of logic emerges through this text that works in the space between this “language of evidence” or fixed meaning, and yet at the same time, goes after knowledge, discovery, exploration, trying to actually learn something…
SG: There’s a question, throughout, about what has really happened. And so there are a lot of different kinds of languages that the answer could arrive in; one could be the language of evidence, and one could be poetry. But how do you engage in poetry in a way that tells something, or proposes evidence, or is a way of thinking? And I think there are ways. And I think that reading for that way is one interesting necessity. So maybe there’s some wish to look at the limitations of the language of evidence, but also to think of what counts as evidence as more than just that kind of Western, scientific, positivist tradition.
MP: Thank you, Susan.
SG: And what did you make of the question I asked? Did you find it of any use?
MP: Yes, I did. It’s a kind of skewed way of looking that I’m always trying to incorporate when I read. That’s kind of how I came to phrase that question about taxonomies to you, because for me, yes, there was absolutely music there – and I mean literally music, but also, this thing that is beyond words. But for me, the question is always: how do you talk about the thing that’s more than words? And so tension is probably the best way that I could put it into words because there is a particular sound and a particular music to the taxonomies you chose and I think they are both fabulous and they open up knowledges on their own, and at the same time, there is something happening by the very placement of the words, by the appropriation of the words, by their interactions with other taxonomies, that we really can’t say much about because they are actions that occur on the page and in the process of seeing them.
SG: That’s a great way of putting it. That’s exactly what I would hope, and so thank you for hearing that and saying it. The result of doing something like that – lifting from the taxonomy palate whatever you want, as long as it seems to be coming out of the work and necessary to the work – doesn’t always make things pretty, that’s for sure. There is tension, and there’s even clashing and a kind of collision that isn’t necessarily at all harmonious. I like the idea of sound as a kind of tension.
Michelle Puckett is an MFA candidate in the poetry program at Mills College where she is currently at work on a manuscript that uses family archive to explore the intersections of public & private guilt, national history, and the politics of looking and ordering. She is the Events Coordinator for Tarpaulin Sky and the winner of the 2009 Mary Merritt Prize in Poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Hot Metal Bridge, Bang Out San Francisco, The Walrus, and Monkey Puzzle Magazine.
Michelle Puckett and Susan Gevirtz at our KSP 35th Anniversary reading in January 2010. Photos courtesy of Merredyth Messer.